All You Can Ever Know – Nicole Chung

Though it came out late in the 2018, Nicole Chung’s All You Can Ever Know is one of the best books of the year. And, as an adoptee, it’s one of the most important books to come out about adoption in a while. When I first heard about Chung (via NPR), I immediately googled her and preordered her book. I was excited for the book to come out, since her story sounded very similar to mine. I was eager to read a book about a fellow transracial adoptee’s experiences in a small town and learn about her transition from a small child to a strong, and capable adult.

All You Can Ever Know is split into four parts, and I found myself relating most strongly to the beginning and the end. In Part One, Chung discusses the confusion and pain she felt growing up and knowing that she was adopted. She retells the story that’s been told to her over and over again as an adopted child, how her parents “chose” her to join their family. As Chung retells her birth story to readers she also makes sure to intertwine her own questions about her birth family, and her adoptive parent’s biased narrative in her storytelling. Like many other adoptees, Chung has questions about her identity and ethnicity that haven’t been explained or explored by her parents. Though she often wonders about her birth family, Chung is unsure about the best way to voice her curiosity in order to learn more about her heritage.

Part One also introduces the racism that Chung encountered as the only Asian-American in her rural Oregon town. As a transracial adoptee I empathized with Chung, I had a similar experience growing up in a rural Eastern Washington town. Chung describes being constantly asked about her ethnicity, her birth parents, and adoptive parents both by adults and children. Her status as a transracial adoptee made her stand out in an all-white town and marked her ethnic differences prominently. Chung laments, “If you were pretty, if you were normal, if you were white, then the good things everyone saw on the outside would match the goodness you knew existed on the inside.” She then surmises, “wouldn’t it be wonderful to look at your face in the mirror and know you would always belong”? As part one ends, readers have a better understanding of how difficult it was to grow up in a rural town and how Chung’s differences as a transracial adoptee added to the confusion and anguish that she dealt with as she grew up.

In Parts Two and Three, Chung describes searching for her birth parents, finds out that she has siblings, and focuses on her life after college. After Part One, Chung discusses how she left Oregon in order to attend college and ended up living in New York. Part Two picks up at a time in which, Chung is a wife and soon-to-be mother. As Chung’s first pregnancy progresses so does her urge to explore where, and who, her birth family is. She utilizes an adoption “search angel” to help her comb through records in order to discover her birth family’s name and information. She soon begins contacting a sister she didn’t know she had, Cindy. The two women work together to learn that the birth story narrative they have have been told, is flawed. Chung comes to understand that her biological family, two immigrants from Korea, gave her up for adoption due to confusion and worry around her medical care since she was born prematurely. Cindy recalls that she knew their birth mother was expecting a child, but after returning home from the hospital without a baby she was told that the baby had died. The conflicting narratives that both women had around Chung’s birth and adoption are painful for both women and their birth parents to explore, but as some of the confusion and secrecy around Chung’s adoption are erased it allows all parties to come to an uneasy, yet supportive understanding of the choices that were made.

Since I’m not a mother, and have yet to meet my adoptive family I felt that Parts Two and Three were relevant to Chung’s story, but didn’t apply much to me. Chung and Cindy form a tight connection after meeting in-person for the first time. Together, both women work to repair relationships with both their birth father and mother. Though there were secrets surrounding Chung’s adoption, towards the end of Part Three both Nicole and Cindy have bonded as sisters, and stand together with their immediate families to support the other sibling and form a new sense of identity.

Part Four explores the catharsis that Chung feels after giving birth to her daughter, Abby and having biological connections to several family members for the first time. By finding and bonding with her birth family, and having her first child, Chung has created a new definition of family for herself and through these changes is allowing herself to heal. Towards the end of the book, Chung reflects that… “[her] adoption no longer feels like mine alone to wonder about, or not – if it ever was. It is part of my sister’s legacy, and our children’s too.” Though Chung is still exploring what it means to be a transracial adoptee, she now is able to confront this status in a more nuanced and loving way. Some of the painful questions that she’s had around her identity are starting to be explored and answered and Chung feels like she’s flourishing in her identity as an adoptee for the first time.

I really really loved reading All You Can Ever Know. While there were parts concerning parenthood, and reunion that I have yet to identify with, I appreciate Chung’s honest candor and her willingness to share her story. It’s hard finding transracial adoptee books where the narrative is clear and concise and Chung does a wonderful job with both. I’m thankful that Chung didn’t shy away from the difficulty and pain that many adoptees have around the subject of their adoptions and birth stories. While others (including adoptive parents) might see the adoption as a positive and “freeing” narrative in a family’s story, adoptees don’t always feel the same way. Chung’s honesty throughout the book was refreshing to read. I felt like another adoptee knew how I felt and understood some of the personal turmoil that I’ve had growing as an adoptee in a way that I haven’t been able to share with anyone else.

In 2019, I’ll be recommending this book to fellow adoptees and adoptive families. I feel that this is an essential piece of literature about the topic of adoption and hope that more understanding and education about transracial adoption will be had after reading this book.

Thank you, thank you, thank you, Mrs. Chung. Your work is allowing other adoptees to blossom alongside you.

– Keturah

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